Saturday, August 1, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 27. Lisbon to Casablanca.

Maya and I had a delightful morning, walking around the shorefront of the Tagus River. Today is Sunday, so the place was hopping. There was a 10 km race going on, tourists were pouring from buses at an amazing rate, and the locals were there in force bicycling, jogging, or just walking with the kids and dogs. Along the river front there is an amazing monument to the Portuguese explorers that looks like the prow of a ship. Thirty or so of Portugal’s great explorers were represented climbing along the sides of the ship, at the front of whom was Prince Henry the Navigator (cynics say that it looks like everyone else is pushing Henry into the river). As I said before, Prince Henry never travelled himself, but he was crazy about cartography, maps, and captain logs. He was without doubt the drive behind the great voyages of exploration, and is credited with the idea of leaving behind a few goats and pigs wherever the explorers landed, so when they went back a few years later there would be a local source of food.

We also visited the Tower of Belem, which was one of the two bastions guarding the mouth of the Tagus River against unwelcome incursions by pirates or enemy fleets. It is a handsome structure and, as a bonus, we discovered that all museums are free on the first Sunday of the month, which happens to be today!

With the knowledge that museums were free we went nuts, and in less than two hours visited the Museum of Popular Art, the Museum of Lisbon Archaeology, and the Monastery of Jeronimos. The latter was … breath-taking. Now, I have visited many monasteries and cloisters in Mexico and around the world, and I have seen some truly outstanding ones, but I have never seen anything so impressive like the cloister of Jeronimos. The white limestone has been carved with delicious detail, and the result is a harmonious symphony in stone that you cannot get tired of looking out. Incidentally, the monastery was built with the proceedings of the very lucrative spice trade, so locally it is referred to as the Pepper Palace.

By noon it was time for me to take off for the airport, so we had a celebratory Pastei de Belem, and I said goodbye to my dear Mayita. I know she will do great in the rest of the time she has in Europe, and am convinced that she will never forget the experience.

The trip to the airport was uneventful, the flight was on time, and I landed in Casablanca at 4:30 and was out of customs by 5:30, preparing to work my way via taxi to downtown Casablanca. Then, to my surprise, I saw the name of the tour group I am joining held by a smiling young man. I reported myself and after three other people were picked up we headed for the city. The secret here is that I was not in the list of people who needed to be picked up, but were lucky enough that some other people were being picked up and I simply went along for the ride!

Casablanca has a very modern airport, about 25 km from the city. The highway connecting them looks fairly new, and as we approached the city I saw modern glass-lined buildings, and all the trappings of a vibrant economy. The old core of the city, however, has clearly seen better times. The buildings are large and have interesting architecture, but they have been neglected so the whole ensemble has a sad aspect. It reminded me of my visit to Alexandria, in Egypt.

I arrived a little late to the initial meeting, which started at 6 pm, but I got the basic info, and during dinner I started the process of getting acquainted with my 14 fellow travelers. This may change once I get to know the better, but right now there seems to be 2/3 Australians and 1/3 Americans. Looks like a good group.

Muslims are now celebrating Ramadan, a very holy month of fasting when devoted Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. It is hard when this fast falls in the summer, because the day is 17 hours long and when the temperature can rise to 40ºC. Curiously, when Faby and I were in Morocco 20 years ago, in January, they were also celebrating Ramadan, but then it was in winter, when it was cool and the days were short.

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